Stakes for Elections 2014: Secularism or Democracy

Mazher Hussain is Executive Director of COVA, a national network working on issues of communal harmony in India and peace in South Asia.

Mazher Hussain

Mazher Hussain

Finally we seem to have succeeded in dividing India, a country of a billion plus, into just two groups. Both groups claim to be secular. The only difference is that while one group accuses the other of being communal, the other brands the first group of being pseudo secular.

Secularism and pseudo secularism have become major planks in India for acquiring political power. Congress, left and other “secular” parties and liberal social formations are trying to stop what appears to be a relentless Delhi March of the BJP led by Narendra Modi by proclaiming that secularism is in danger. Many respected Indian intellectuals from across the world and celebrities from Bollywood have also made appeals not to vote for communal parties (meaning BJP) and save secularism. On the other hand, BJP and its allies by questioning the duplicity and limitations in the practice of secularism by Congress and others seem to be succeeding in influencing the people on the street enough to make them equate secularism with Muslim appeasement and hence the increasing polarization and forward March to Delhi.

Secularism as Requirement of Muslim

The original meaning of the term secularism, that had its genesis in Europe, essentially meant keeping religion out of politics and statecraft. In the Indian context, with the prevalence of a multiplicity of religions, practice of secularism also came to require equal respect for all religions and complete freedom to practice one’s belief without hindrance from the state or society. But over time, the debate has degenerated to an extent where secularism in India has come to acquire a limited meaning of protection or favouring of Muslims -both in political discourse and popular imagination. Any talk of secularism immediately brings into focus and mostly revolves around the Muslim (and to some extent the Christian) community – excluding multitude of other religions, sects and social groupings that make up India and seems to imply that secularism is essentially a requirement of Muslims and not so much for other communities, especially the majority community, or for the country.

But is secularism in India (with its religious, caste, linguistic, ethnic and regional diversities) necessary only for Muslims and are secular credentials to be gauged by determining if you protect or harm Muslims?  

Are there any Secular Parties in India

The Hindutva forces comprising of RSS, BJP and myriad other formations have clear anti Muslim ideological pronouncements and active involvement in innumerable communal riots including the reprehensible Gujrat carnage of 2002 allegedly with the use of state machinery and complicity of Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the State. Such history and track record seems to make BJP a fit candidate to be labeled a communal group. But what about parties like the Congress, left, SP, BSP and others? Are they indeed secular? When can you accept a group as secular and when should it be condemned as communal.

ElectionIs the congress that is primarily responsible for the massacre of over 3000 Sikhs in 1984 and that unleashed innumerable communal riots across the country that mostly harmed and debilitated the Muslim community communal or secular? Is the TDP, that put an abrupt and unbelievable stop to the endemic of communal riots in Hyderabad (that had become a norm during the Congress rule in AP), but aliened with BJP in 2009 and now in 2014 and continued to support it even after the 2002 Gujrat carnage, secular or communal? Is the Samajwadi Party (SP), that came to power mostly due to the Muslim vote in 2012 but allowed over a hundred communal clashes within a year of its rule culminating in the reprehensible riot in Muzaffarnagar that killed more than 200 and displaced over 60,000 Muslims, communal or secular? Modi is indeed answerable for the Gujrat carnage as the Chief Minister. But why should not the Chief Minister of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, be held equally accountable for the riots in Muzaffarnagar also?

Is the CPM, that parades itself as the paradigm of liberal politics but totally sidelined the development of Muslims in West Bengal during three decades of its rule (where the development indicators for Muslims were much worse than those in Gujarat), secular or communal?  Is Shiv Sena communal when it targets Muslims and secular or at most sectarian when it is going after Malayalees or North Indians?  The list can go on and on and there seems to be no political party in India that is not guilty of sectarian practices and can be called truly secular.

When no political party in India is truly secular, then what justification can be there for an appeal to keep out BJP from power?  If BJP should not be in power because of its communal character, then most other parties, including the Congress, should also be kept out.

Danger to Democracy

It is important to understand that the danger from BJP lead by Modi is not just to the secular character of our country but more critically to the very core of democracy. A simple analysis of the build up and the conduct of the campaign for 2014 general elections reveals emergence of Narendra Modi as the preeminent leader sidelining all others, including stalwarts like Advani and subverting the party itself. If BJP indeed comes to power, then the character of the new government will not be defined so much by the party but by Narendra Modi. And the so called Gujarat Model provides us a glimpse of what could be expected:

Authoritarian rule centered around a single individual (no one else from  Gujarat Government is visible- kindly name one minister), subversion of constitutional institutions (Lok Ayukta and judiciary compelling the Supreme Court to transfer some riot cases out of Gujrat), misuse of government machinery (encounter killings, snoopgate); vindictive politics and eliminations of all oppositions both outside and also within Party (remember Hiren Pandya? and already there is talk of Accountability Commissions), curtailing of legislative process (average sittings of Gujarat Assembly for 30 days in a year during Modi’s rule- worst record in the history of Gujarat), crony capitalism (Congress is equally guilty of this), propaganda machinery that can rival the best in the world (if Gujarat Model indeed developed the state so phenomenally, then how come the difference in the vote share of BJP and Congress was just 3  percent during 2009 general  elections -BJP 46.53% and Congress 43.38%) and use of religious ideology and riots for political polarisation (Gujarat 2002, Muzafarnagar 2014 and many more).

Recipe for Fascism

When such dictatorial mindset and practice is back by an ideology (Hindutva in this case), it becomes an ideal recipe for a fascist state.  So what is at stake is not just secularism but the very continuation of democracy in our country. If there is no democracy, there can be no secularism, freedom of expression, entitlements and so many other values that are essential for any society to sustain and prosper.      

It is time people of India realize that in their mad scramble to vote for or against secularism, they should not end up sacrificing the very core essence of our nation: Democracy.

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